Paddington (2014) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for mild action and rude humor
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Ben Whishaw (voice), Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Nicole Kidman, Samuel Joslin, Madeleine Harris, Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Michael Gambon (voice), Imelda Staunton (voice)
Director: Paul King
Screenplay: Paul King (based on the character by Michael Bond)
Review published December 24, 2014
From the appearance of the terrible pratfall-filled trailer, Paddington would appear like one of those anthropomorphic misfires in the vein of Kangaroo Jack or Yogi Bear. The film had some dubious press in the late days of its production when Colin Firth, who had recorded the voice of Paddington, requested to be removed, claiming that he didn't think it worked. In his place is Ben Whishaw (The Zero Theorem, Skyfall), whose perfectly suitable voice doesn't sound that far different than Firth's, though he doesn't carry the same star power.
Some might surmise that Firth, having seen the finished product, might not want his name attached to a bad movie, but in its native England, it's actually a surprise hit, both commercially and critically. One might surmise that the average British film-goer may be attibuting additional feelings of sweetness and nostalgia to the project that they've carried since the much-cherished memories of his stories from their youth, while some film critics see and applaud an overt political underpinning to the story, speaking directly against the current anti-immigration climate in England.
So what does a Yank like me, who didn't grow up on the Michael Bond stories, think about the film adaptation, coming in with no preconceived notions? Answer: It's a promising, perhaps cloying, family film, with a mix of both adorably cute and comically embarrassing moments, severely marred by a truly awful murderous subplot involving a gun-toting, knife-throwing Nicole Kidman (Before I Go to Sleep, The Railway Man), who for some reason is dressed as some sort of dominatrix, that just doesn't fit in tonally with what could have been just a loveable postcard to a cute bear with an immigrant's story to tell.
Based, somewhat, on the original series of "Paddington Bear" stories by Michael Bond, the gist of the story is that a young member of a rare species of hyper-intelligent, marmalade-loving Peruvian bears whose homes have been nearly destroyed by an earthquake travels to London, where he's quickly (albeit reluctantly) brought in by a kind-hearted family of four, then dubbed "Paddington" (based on the subway station they find him in). Fish-out-of-water antics ensue, with Paddington having a "bear of a time" fitting in with human society, who largely are accepting of his ursine appearance, while the family searches for an explorer who once visited Peru that had offered to take him in were he ever to find himself in London. Meanwhile, Paddington may not last long enough to finish his quest when he is tenaciously pursued by a maniacal huntress named Millicent (Kidman).
The direction from TV vet Paul King is quite spry, with punchy visuals, good pacing, and decent comic performances from a game cast. The CGI Paddington is generally cute, though its artifice does make for some generally cheesy moments, especially during the prolonged slapstick set pieces. With the look of the Brown family's flat and its inhabitants, some may be reminded of the visual styling of Wes Anderson, whose visual flair also seems to be a main influence on the camera framing and tracking shots. The humor is hit and miss, with a few clever lines (a driver's GPS verbalizes an instruction to "bear left" just as the sight of a soaring Paddington appears on the left), but also seems obvious and outdated in others (Hugh Bonneville (The Monuments Men, Stage Beauty) ends up in drag, playing a very butch-looking nurse who, naturally, is seen as quite the eye candy for an amorous co-worker, a la Some Like It Hot).
Unfortunately, the plot, also by Paul King, is a major liability, mostly due to its dark and repugnant climax which involves Paddington potentially being killed, having his guts ripped out and replaced by sawdust, and being put on display in a natural history museum. Even the family who lovingly take him in find themselves on the verge of being shot to death themselves. Ugh. Seems like a poor way to end a warm, sweet-natured kids movie about a polite, loveable bear finding an unlikely new home among strangers. Like brushing your teeth with a glop of ear wax, Paddington leaves quite the sour aftertaste.
©2014 Vince Leo